Explained: Why Does It Take So Long To Develop a Vaccine?

A UCSF epidemiologist breaks down why it takes so long to develop a vaccine.

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As COVID-19 continues to take lives and shut-down the global economy, there is more pressure than ever to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible. On May 15, 2020, President Trump unveiled “Operation Warp Speed,” an ambitious plan to develop a a vaccine against COVID-19 by the end of the year.  While this timeline isn’t impossible, many experts agree it could be a year or more before a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.  

We spoke with Dr. George Rutherford, a researcher and Professor of Epidemiology at UCSF, about what it takes to develop a new vaccine. “Vaccines are never simple,” Rutherford said. “There are always a million things that can go wrong. So it has to be done carefully, safely. And while Operation Warp Speed conveys this idea that we’re going to jet through this process, we’re not skipping through the safety.” 

Vaccines require years of research and testing, not to mention FDA approvals, manufacturing and distribution. It’s a long and complex process that typically takes decades. In fact, the record for getting an entirely new vaccine on the market is four years. 

In the explainer video above, Dr. Rutherford walks us through the six stages of getting a vaccine to market and breaks down what companies are doing now to speed up that process.

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